Pop music has never been just about the music. America's massive commercial entertainment complex creates earworms and celebrity performers both as products in their own right and as a means of extending its influence even further. While some (rightly or wrongly) complain about the decline in "quality" of today's popular music, there's no denying that it remains an incredibly powerful force across the whole landscape of popular culture — the soundtrack for everything from movies and fashion runways to television, ranging from the indie tracks heard in the background of Girls, the country sounds that animate Nashville, or the mega-pop powering television "musicals" like Glee and Smash and the recent, ceaseless breed of reality-talent shows like American Idol, The Voice, and America's Got Talent.
This isn't a new phenomenon. Music has always been a key node of the popular culture matrix, from Frank Sinatra's emergence on radio's Major Bowes' Amateur Hour to Elvis Presley’s banned hip twitches on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Because American pop music is omnipresent, it almost seems to have no geography — you might see an artist promoting a project on morning television when you're getting dressed, hear their new song in the taxi on the way to the airport, and then again in the taxi on the way to your hotel when you deplane on the other side of the world. But pop songs, like widgets, are "manufactured" commodities, with a production system of composers, lyricists, producers, engineers, musicians, singers, publicists, and marketers, all of them embedded in real places.
So what does the geography of popular music look like? Which cities are the epicenters of today's pop music production complex?
My research team at the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) used Myspace to shed some light on this question, using data originally organized by cultural sociologist Dan Silver and the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center. Downloaded in early 2007 at the peak of the site's popularity (it had more visitors than Google at the time), the data cover more than three million artists. Under the leadership of Silver and the MPI research director Kevin Stolarick, the research team cleaned and organized these data by genre and location, generating useable data on more than two million acts across United States cities.
This team grouped the 123 genres that Myspace allows each act to self-select from (acts could classify themselves in as many as three genres) into a much smaller set of meta-genres that provide a fair reflection of America's commercial soundscape. These meta-genres include: Rock, Urban, Pop, Electronic, Folk, Country, Christian, Latin-Afro-Caribbean, Experimental, and Jazz. (The full methodology used to identify these meta-genres is explained in this MPI working paper). To identify the places that have the biggest influence on popular music, Stolarick created a Music Popularity Index (which I wrote about here), a composite measure of the fans, views, and plays accumulated across the Myspace universe for every act located in U.S. cities (the analysis did not cover cities in other countries). The combination of fans, plays, and views generates big numbers that I round to millions below.
Myspace may have fallen by the wayside since 2007, but at the time it was a reasonable barometer of the zeitgeist. Note to cutting-edge music mavens or special pleaders for one city or another who are ready to jump on our use of outmoded Myspace data: We are using these data strictly as a way of quantifying place-based views and plays, not to identify the "best" or most critically-acclaimed music locations or scenes. Because of its online reach at the time, Myspace is well-suited to documenting the role of place in pop music's commercial ecosystem in a digital environment.
More than aural wallpaper, commercially produced and distributed pop music is both a reflection and a commodification of mass-market tastes and values and a calculated driver of consumption. Like the MUZAK that's programmed in department stores to put shoppers in an acquisitive frame of mind, pop music — whether downloaded from iTunes, heard on the radio in a car, or as a commercial jingle — is both a product of capitalism and a part of its toolkit.
Los Angeles is the nation's dominant center for popular music production, besting New York City by more than 40 percent with an overall Popularity Index score of 3,548 (versus 1,970 for New York). And it does so while having a much smaller edge in musical bands and acts (175,083 versus 115,767 for New York, as I noted here).
The digital shift in the music and entertainment industry — and the tremendous decline in sales — has only reinforced L.A.'s dominance in the pop music and pop culture complex. Instead of spreading out and flattening the geography of popular music industry places, the digital revolution has heightened L.A.'s hegemony. This stands in sharp contrast to many other regions like Detroit or Pittsburgh that have been battered with changing technology and rising foreign competition in their core industries.
L.A.'s dominance reflects the rise of popular music as a critical component of the broader nexus of celebrity culture. As University of Southern California's Elizabeth Currid-Halkett painstakingly documents in her book Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity, L.A. has evolved beyond a film and television production complex into the center for the production of celebrity. A large and growing fraction of these celebrities — Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Rihanna and the like — have a platform in popular music, and L.A. is their dominant location. As such, it has evolved a broad infrastructure devoted to the production and dissemination of celebrity culture, spanning websites, social media, talk shows, gossip, and paparazzi-driven television fare like TMZ and E! as well as reality talent shows.
New York is a distant second in this pop music and pop culture landscape. It tops only one genre, jazz, which attracts a narrower, older, and more highly educated audience, while placing second behind L.A. in six categories — Rock, Pop, Electronic, Latin-Caribbean, Folk, and Experimental — and third in Urban. This is despite the fact that New York is considerably bigger economically than L.A., has many major network news broadcasts and talk shows such as Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report, has an ongoing role in rap and hip-hop, and is also home to Brooklyn, a leading center for upscale Indie music.
Nashville is a much bigger player in the music entertainment complex than its size would suggest. It takes the top spot in two genres, Country and Christian, and is among the top 10 in five genres. When we control for population it takes first place overall, besting both L.A. and New York on the Music Popularity Index on a per capita basis. Similarly, Nashville boasts the largest concentration of musical talent and of recording and music industry establishments on a per person basis (as I noted here). Nashville, in effect, has become akin to the "Silicon Valley" of the music business, combining accessibility, professionalism, great music infrastructure, and great talent. And the city's role extends beyond the its core of country and Christian music. Nashville plays an increasingly important role in rock and pop, attracting top talent like Jack White, The Black Keys, and many other mainstream rock and pop acts, as well as supporting a thriving indie scene.
Atlanta has emerged as the epicenter for the culturally influential Urban genre, home to important acts like Outkast, Usher, Ludacris, and Soulja Boy, as well as the hit-making producers behind Rihanna's "Umbrella" and Beyoncé's "Single Ladies." When Justin Bieber's manager, Scooter Braun, wanted to infuse the young singer with "street cred," he brought him to Atlanta to collaborate with Usher Raymond. But Atlanta's role extends beyond the Urban genre. It ranks in the top 10 in eight of the major genres examined here. It has become established at producing polished artists in more mainstream music genres like Collective Soul, The Black Crowes, John Mayer, and Mastodon. The city also has a less widely recognized, but quite influential, indie music scene with bands like Black Lips, The Coathangers, and Deerhunter.
Other cities that are significant presences on the pop music landscape are Chicago, which places in the top 10 in nine genres; Boston and Philadelphia each place in the top 10 in seven; Seattle in five; San Francisco and San Diego in four each; Miami, Oakland, and Phoenix, each in three; and Dallas, Orange County, and Orlando, in two apiece.
And of course, many smaller cities also exert considerable influence on music in excess of either their size or the number of fan clicks they attract. For example, college town scenes such as Athens, Georgia, arts retreats like Woodstock, New York, and indie redoubts like Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon that incubate new sounds and have a great deal of influence on other musicians.
If popular music has a "fat head" of mass celebrity and popularity, it also has a "long tail" of artistry and innovation.
Top image: Justin Bieber performs in Los Angeles in December 2012. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
All maps by MPI's Zara Matheson.